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Hindutva goes to school

Yes, and that too in California where Sangh Parivar fanatics are hell-bent on replicating the saffronisation of the history project, despite strong protests by historians and scholars

By Shalini Gera & Girish Agrawal

Shalini Gera
Girish Agrawal
School textbooks are making news again. Indian history is again being hotly debated. The actors are strikingly familiar: Hindutva groups aggressively pushing their own version of ‘glorious India’, and historians, linguists, scholars, dalits and community groups outraged by this attempted revision of history. Only the scene has changed — from the corridors of ncert in Delhi to the offices of the California State Board of Education in the US.

California? Yes. Early last year, two groups, the Vedic Foundation and Hindu Educational Foundation, took it upon themselves to submit recommendations for revisions to the California textbooks and their treatment of ancient Indian history. At first, it did not seem like a bad idea — these textbooks were replete with stereotypes, misrepresentations, exoticised allusions to monkey-kings and howlers such as the one informing 12-year-olds that Hindi is written in the Arabic script with 18 letters. It soon became apparent that the two groups did not restrict themselves to deleting references to monkey-kings and correcting factual errors, they also inserted several inaccurate, ideological, and highly contentious changes. This is not surprising. The two groups have close connections to the global Sangh Parivar: the Hindu Education Foundation is a project of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, and the Vedic Foundation has a long history of collaboration with the vhp of America.

When news leaked out, scholars of ancient Indian history, led by Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, including Romila Thapar, India’s most respected historian, sent a letter to the state board cautioning them against accepting the proposed edits without a scholarly review. The letter was signed by a Who’s-Who of Indologists from around the world. Another group of over 100 faculty, primarily of South Asian origin, who teach and do research about South Asia at universities in the US, requested that a panel of three Indologists be allowed to review the changes proposed by the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation.

The Curriculum Commission, an advisory body to the state board, came under intense pressure from the Hindutva groups as their supporters bombarded them with letters, phone calls and e-mails, and then, turned up in large numbers at the review meeting. As a result, the commission accepted many of the Hindutva changes, much to the horror of the scholars asking for careful review. However, the board, alerted to the political nature of the edits, has stalled giving these edits the final stamp of approval. In an unprecedented move, during its meeting on January 12, 2006, the board announced that it is investigating whether the commission took factual accuracy into account when making its recommendations. Thus raising the hopes of scholars and community groups that the Hindutva edits may not get accepted.

 
Dalits arguing against the sanitisation of casteism are vilified as anti-India terrorists. Others are harassed, abused, deluged with hate mail
The contentious changes pushed by the Hindutva groups serve three purposes:

Sanitise Indian history of its gross inequities. Talk about caste only in the past tense, remove anything suggesting that caste still determines the status of people in Indian society, and say that men did not have “more” rights than women, they just had “different” rights.

Portray Hinduism as very similar to Judaism and Christianity — the politically dominant religions in the US. Erase references to plurality in Hinduism by tricks such as replacing “Hindu gods” with “the Hindu God”, and deleting text that says Hinduism comprises “many beliefs, many forms of worship, and many gods”.

India as “Pitribhumi” only for Hindus. Delete references to a possible non-indigenous origin of the Indo-Aryans and move the origins of Hinduism back in time, making ‘foreigners’ of all non-Hindu Indians.

Why did the Curriculum Commission accept these ridiculous changes? Largely because the US Sangh Parivar convinced it that to do otherwise would hurt the feelings of Hindus all over the world, and would be akin to the sins of slavery and colonialism. Scholars opposing these changes are being attacked through vicious smear campaigns and labelled as anti-Hindu and racist. Dalit groups arguing against the sanitisation of casteism are being vilified as anti-Indian terrorists. Community members working to educate the board are being harassed, deluged with hate mail, threatened, and put on Hindutva hit-lists. Hindutva opponents are being labelled as anti-India, anti-Hindu, “communist” — the last a pathetic attempt to appeal to the supposedly communist-phobic mainstream America.

None of this is new, neither this attempt to saffronise textbooks, nor the creation of a brand new past consistent with their political project — not even the attacks on scholars and others opposing their agenda. But seeing this as a re-run of an old reel does injustice to the complexity of Indian-American politics. What gives this story its unique flavour is the context of immigrant politics. Where Hindutva proudly espouses majority fascism in India, in the US it hobbles along as a me-too junior partner of an arrogant Judaeo-Christian State. Where Hindutva in India menacingly brandishes its muscle to elicit fearful compliance from the minorities, in the US it uses the subdued vocabulary of plurality, multiculturalism and “hurt feelings” to plead for incorporation into the mainstream. And it is in investigating these shades of difference between desi and yankee versions of Hindutva that we learn most about the insidious appeal of ‘Hindu Nationalism’ being repackaged as ‘Hindu Minority Rights’.

Yankee Hindutva depends upon the subtext of everyday racism for its very existence. Every person of colour in the US has had some brush with marginalisation, alienation, some experience where power is wielded in racial terms. Hindutva cynically manipulates the hurt and anger of marginalisation into narrow, chauvinistic community pride. Where the response to racism could act as the unifying glue between various communities of colour to question power structures, the quest for affirmation of a community’s pride neatly chops up the minority landscape into distinct ethnicities, with each community jostling against the other to occupy a place of prominence in the national imagination.

The California textbook controversy is a classic example of this pattern. The textbooks are terrible, but instead of engaging with the inherent racism and exoticisation of the ‘other’ in the books, Hindutva groups are converting history books into cheery propaganda tracts as reassurance that Hindus are the same as white Christians and Jews and fully deserving of the most-favoured minority group status. And the changes come attractively wrapped in the language of rights and equality.

When challenged in public fora, Hindutva apologists insist that they are not denying the ills of caste and patriarchy, just questioning any need to talk about them. A Hindutva activist stoutly defended the changes: “Hindus are only asking for parity, which is in accordance with the guidelines of the California board. If the sins of Islam and Christianity are whitewashed, so must the sins of Hinduism.” Suhag Shukla, a lawyer for Hindu American Foundation, said: “In terms of men and women, I think, first of all if you look at Christianity or Judaism or Islam, nowhere in the textbooks is there any discussion on women’s rights. Then to pull it in for Hinduism is a different treatment of Hinduism.” And the reason for insisting upon capital G for Hindu gods? Because that is the way it is written in the texts for other religions. No matter that other religions are adamantly monotheistic to polytheistic Hinduism.

“Equality” for Yankee Hindutva is a disembodied, decontextualised notion — independent of any connection to concepts of freedom or justice. While mouthing the language of equality, Hindutva does not even pretend to challenge any underlying structural inequities — either in American society where it only seeks to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful, or in India with its deep-seated antagonism towards the lower castes. ‘Hindu Human Rights’ are never invoked when Indians get thrown off airplanes for ‘looking suspicious’, or when immigrant taxi drivers are harassed by the police. ‘Hindu Human Rights’ are apparently only violated when beer bottles have pictures of Lord Ganesha or when caste is talked about in classrooms.

Shalini Gera is with the Coalition Against Communalism, San Francisco Bay Area. Girish Agrawal is an engineer involved in South Asian causes, based in California

Feb 04 , 2006
 

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